Drive almost any Mid-South route nowadays, whether a major thoroughfare or a rural highway, and you’ll see along the roadside orange, black, and white plastic posts signifying buried fiber optic cable.
It is one of the ironies of the Internet era that vast areas of the region are spider-webbed with high speed broadband cable networks, but large percentages of the non-metro areas of those states don’t have access because the telecom companies that own those networks don’t deem it financially worthwhile to provide access. Thousands of homes and small businesses are within rock-tossing distance of fiber optic cable, but it does them no good.
The Federal Communications Commission, which in its most recent analysis acknowledges that broadband deployment in the U.S. “is failing to keep pace” with today’s advanced demand, particularly in rural areas, has revised upward its broadband benchmark to 25 megabits per second for download and 3 megabits per second for upload. That’s still not blazing fast, but it’s a decided improvement over the previous benchmark of 4 mbps download and 1 mbps upload.
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Using this updated service benchmark, the agency notes there is “a significant digital divide” between rural and urban areas (see map at http://fcc.us/1MXM0Q8), where TV cable providers and telecom companies offer speeds significantly faster, with gigabit service becoming more common in metro areas.
The report says that 53 percent of rural Americans (22 million people) lack access to 25/3 mbps service, compared to only 8 percent in urban areas. “Rural America continues to be underserved at all speeds,” it notes, with 20 percent lacking access to even the previous benchmark 4/1 mbps service. Approximately 33 percent of schools lack access to fiber service.
While significant progress has been made, due in part to support through the FCC’s Universal Service program, “these advances are not occurring broadly enough or quickly enough, and more work needs to be done by the private and public sectors to expand robust broadband to all Americans in a timely way.”
To further attempt to close the digital divide, the FCC will make $1.5 billion in annual funding available through its Connect America program, with the goal of providing benchmark service to over 7 million more users by the end of 2020.
The biggest amount will go to CenturyLink, $505.7 million annually, to expand and support broadband service for more than 2.3 million of its rural customers. AT&T will get $427.7 million annually to expand and support broadband for more than 2.2 million of its rural customers. Millions more will go to other providers in 45 states.
In my state of Mississippi AT&T is getting almost $50 million, which the FCC says is enough to expand service to 134,000 more people in all 82 counties of the state. AT&T’s Mississippi president said in a statement that the company “is committed to serving rural Mississippi, using all available technologies, including AT&T’s innovative fixed wireless program trhat delivers broadband through the air, using base stations and fixed antennas on customers’ homes or buildings.”
Windstream Communications is getting $917,000 to add another 2,760 customers, and Connecticut-based Frontier will work mainly in four northeast Mississippi counties.
In some rural counties in the state, the FCC notes, more than half the residents don’t have even moderately fast Internet service.
“Access to modern broadband is critical to life in today’s society,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in announcing the program. “The financial support provided by American ratepayers through the Connect America program is an investment in the future of our rural communities that will pay dividends for all Americans for years to come.”
The funding will subsidize the construction of broadband networks in rural areas over the next six years. Forty percent of the work must be complete by the end of 2017, 100 percent by the end of 2020.